Friday, February 29, 2008

Neapolitans of Note Earl & Thelma Hodges (Part I)

The italicised portion of this entry was published in our e-newsletter, NSA Issue 14. Where the italics end, the unpublished portion of the story begins.

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Originally From: Earl - Tennessee / Thelma – Massachusetts
Neapolitans Since: 1955
Careers: Funeral Home Director / Nurse

The first thing you have to know about Earl and Thelma Hodges is, they’re good people.

They didn’t inherit a fortune or make it to the big time with an IPO. They don’t live in a castle in Port Royal, although their house is very nice. They drive a Dodge Caravan (Earl: “The stow-and-go seat sold me”), not a Rolls Royce. Themla works the cash registers most Thursdays in the White Elephant, NCH’s thrift shop (as do Ted’s Mom and stepfather). It’s Earl’s favorite place to shop. He loves the $1 name-brand shirts he often finds there.

Oh, and they have a university named after them: Hodges University, known as International College before their $12 million endowment last summer.

If any of this doesn’t add up, you haven’t been paying attention. Here’s a news flash: good things happen to good people. Specifically, if you spend your life giving more to your neighbors and community than you could ever get back, and if you build a business based on genuine relationships and personal integrity, then you, too, can give your fortune away some day.

Thelma and Earl met when they were introduced by Les and Betty Johnson in 1956 – Les was president of the Chamber of Commerce at the time. Earl was one of the few bachelors in the sleepy little fishing village of Naples; Thelma was one of the founding nurses at Naples Community Hospital. She had moved to Naples the year before from Massachusetts with her younger sister and a friend. They were staying right across an alley from Earl’s aunt and uncle. Thelma, no wilting flower, invited Earl to the Junior Women’s Club ball. There were plenty of single women in Naples at that time, but talking to Earl, it’s clear that wasn’t a distraction. “I was a bumpkin,” he says, still clearly grateful that Thelma took a liking to him 52 years ago. “I didn’t even own a watch.”

That bumpkin, mind you, had begun his business career at thirteen. Attending the funeral of a friend’s father, Earl was smitten by the hearse, and ended up talking to the undertaker through the entire service. He began working for that funeral director without pay until his one-year anniversary, when the owner handed him an envelope. Inside was one dollar. “It was okay that they didn’t pay me; I was getting an education. I was thrilled to get that dollar!”

Earl held numerous other jobs, served in the Maritime Service (the Merchant Marine) in World War II, joined the Army Reserve after the war, and served in grave registration for the Army in the Korean War.

Nothing Earl has ever done was simple, but nothing kept him from achieving his goals, either. For instance, he tried to sign up for military service during WWII, but he failed the physicals for the Marines, the Navy, the Army, and the Coast Guard, each time because he had too much protein in his urine. Undaunted, he befriended a nurse who advised him to drink lots of water before his physical, because that would dilute the protein in his system. He did, and passed the exam for the Maritime Service. He wanted to serve his country in the War, and he did. Earl Hodges doesn’t make excuses; he makes things happen.

Here’s another one. He moved to Naples, began work at Pitman’s Funeral Home, and married Thelma. It was supposed to take him four years to qualify for his own funeral director’s license, but Pitman didn’t have enough customers to qualify in one of those years (that’s how small Naples was back then), so it took him five years instead. During all that time, Earl built up a reputation around town as a man of honor, a good man who thought nothing of going the extra mile – or several extra miles – for his customers and his friends.

Finally, a funeral home operator from the Keys came to Naples with an eye toward opening a spot to compete with Pitman’s. Earl out-maneuvered the out-of-towner for the lot he was going to buy for his funeral home; he started his own business instead. “It was time,” he said. “The town was growing, and someone was going to enter the market anyway.”

Well, Mr. Pitman didn’t see it that way, so he badmouthed Earl around town – which blew up in his face, because everyone knew what a stand-up guy Earl was. Then, Pitman bought the lot south of the Hodges’ funeral home, and erected a mammoth billboard there to advertise his own business, blocking much of Earl’s visibility from the street. Again, it backfired.

“I would have gladly paid rent on that sign,” he laughs. “Folks in town thought that was unfair, so it helped us a lot.”

Says Earl, “I don’t believe in cut-throat business practices. Pitman did, and it hurt his business. A lot.”

Things got better from there. Naples grew, and with it, the Hodges’ fortunes. They ended up with a number of funeral homes, including some in other parts of the state, a memorial garden, and two crematoriums. A look at Earl’s resume shows he founded or served on the boards of a few local banks, and he and Thelma invested a bit in property, as well.

Things didn’t happen overnight for these two. They lived over their funeral home from 1960 to 1976, when they bought their current home for $156,000. (It’s worth a bit more today.) Thelma continued working up until their move. In other words, Thelma and Earl Hodges are the spitting image of Stanley and Danko’s Millionaire Next Door.

More than the business success, though, when you talk to the Hodges, you hear again and again about their involvement in philanthropy. Thelma has been active in thirteen area nonprofits; Earl, twenty-nine.

A very partial list for Thelma: she seems to have served in every officer position of the NCH Auxiliary. She has been president of the Junior Women’s Club and Visiting Nurse’s Council, and she was chairman of Bazaar Luncheons. She is presently Chairman of the Old Timers’ Association (yes, there really is an Old Timers’ Association in Naples). Every month, she and her friends still meet at the Women’s Club downtown.

Earl has served as Past President of the Naples Area Chamber of Commerce, Naples Shrine Club, United Way of Collier County (where he was also Campaign Chairman), and Collier County Junior Deputies’ League, which works with forth and fifth graders – he remains a director of this organization. He also served as Chairman of the Collier County Red Cross for ten years, and spent another ten years as president of Swamp Buggy Days, where he is Chairman Emeritus.
And there’s more… and more… for each of them. The bottom line? The Hodges aren’t just people who decided to have a university named after them. More accurately, their incredibly active civic engagement over the past fifty-plus years is why the university now bears their name. The horse came before the cart, you could say.

But we had one question that really needed answering: Why the university? With all of these great causes, why donate such a large sum to one particular organization, and why that one in particular?

“Because Terry (President Terry McMahan) broke Earl down,” Thelma quips with a sparkle in her eye that reminds us of a much, much younger version of Ted’s Grandma.
She continues, “People are very impressed with the money, but I have two jobs now because Earl gave all our money away.”

…And that about sums it up for this feature. To read more about Earl and Thelma – and there is a lot more that we mean to share about these two wonderful Neapolitans – keep opening your email from Naples Social Action. We’ll be running another feature on the Hodges soon, focusing next time on their passionate interest in their namesake, Hodges University.